Utility Companies Not Cooperating with Community
By Jim Bliesner
Cheryl Dye, a North Park resident and business owner, President of the North Park Main Street and a member of the North Park Planning Committee presented a full blown summary of the problem of unsightly electrical boxes littering the streets of North park at a City Council Committee hearing on September 24, 2012.
According to her testimony the electrical boxes, put in place by SDGE, Cox Communication and ATT as an alternative to overhead wires, haven’t worked out very well: “Our urban landscape is being blighted by unsightly utility equipment. The proliferation of this equipment is damaging neighborhood character, impeding walkability and reducing property values.”
She said that utility boxes are “graffiti magnets”. She was not referring to the painting of the boxes by local artists which depict unique designs hoping they will mitigate the impact of the boxes. These paintings started downtown in East Village many years ago and now proliferate the urban landscape. She stated that property owners have little luck getting the owners of the electrical boxes to remove graffiti once it is tagged.
Ironically, Ms Dye pointed out, “The electrical boxes funded under the Utility Surcharge Undergrounding Program which was approved by the Public Utilities Commission were based on resident concerns about aesthetics. However, the City’s undergrounding program has resulted in relocating electrical facilities from the overhead wires to unsightly above ground boxes without community input or any City regulation as to their design or placement. These boxes are also being added to the community due to new business demands and technology updates”
Ms Dye was introduced to the committee members by Joe LaCava, the President of the Community Planners Committee, a coalition of all the planning groups recognized by the City. Mr. LaCava advised the Committee that the CPC had reviewed this issue and supports the efforts to establish a “Task Force” of community planning group representatives, city staff and utility company representatives.
The CPC’s request is for the task force to develop standards for utility box design, placement and graffiti removal and to develop standards for future public input.
The effort to establish a task force was also supported also by letters from business groups such as the North Park Main Street, the Adams Avenue and El Cajon Blvd Business Improvement Districts and from the North Park Planning Committee.
The aesthetic management of the process and design of the boxes is not without precedent. Mission Hills was part of a pilot project in which the City, rather than SDGE acted as the undergrounding district project manager. As a result many of the boxes were placed underground.
This exception is contrasted with the experience of both North Park and the Talmadge neighborhood who won an “Onion” award for the disastrous handling of utility box placement in that neighborhood. The proliferation of rows of these boxes in Tallmadge brought that community planning group to support council policy changes as well. The Kensington Planning group has requested that further undergrounding be stopped until there is some plan in place for the location and design of the boxes.
The City Council Land Use and Housing Committee heard testimony on the issue and then voted 2-2 with Todd Gloria and Sheri Lightner supporting it. The tie vote brought the initiative to a halt. The request to establish a task force was opposed by SDGE and ATT and Cox.
They proposed instead to hold a series of workshops with the various planning groups to discuss their complaints. Since the LUHC meeting the utilities have made a presentation to the Community Planning Committee and participated in a workshop sponsored by Councilman Gloria. No actions resulted from either meeting.
There have been no attempts by the utilities to sit down and develop functional guidelines. There has been no follow up by utilities as requested by the LUHC to provide regular updates to their committee
Despite community requests for greater opportunity for input, the process continues to create negative impacts on both businesses and residential properties. In North Park an overhead wires undergrounding project began recently on Lincoln Street. There was no notification to the affected property owners except when they were asked to sign the City’s “Permission to enter” forms, long after all engineering plans were complete. The undergrounding project was not shown in the City’s Underground Master Plan.
Steve Hill staff to Councilman Gloria responded to community inquiries by stating that “it’s possible we will have this item back on the docket of the Land Use and Housing Committee in the near future “At the previous meeting that ended in the tie vote, Councilwoman Zapf was interested in allowing the discussions between the communities and the utilities to occur.
Mr. Hill stated that “in the interim there has been a lot of work between SDG&E and City staff regarding the placement issues and that some changes have been made in the notification process.” He further commented on the fact that in order for SDG&E to make any changes in current practices it would be necessary to take the item back to the PUC for approval.
If this is done it would be possible for the utility to pass the costs on to consumers. Neither ATT nor Cox are regulated by the PUC and if changes to their practices were made it might result in higher costs to consumers so there may be a greater reluctance to make changes such as undergrounding the boxes
According to Ms Dye, “The utility companies have made some changes that are beneficial to property owners. However, the fundamental problems related to the lack of ability to influence where these boxes go so as to prevent blockage of homeowner and storefront entryways and views, and to avoid creating strings of ugly, obstructive boxes along public sidewalks are still in place.
Community groups are still pursuing assistance from the Mayor and Councilmember’s and are hoping something positive will happen.”